It seems as if Western culture were making a prodigious effort of historiographic anamnesis. It seeks to discover, ‘awaken,’ and repossess the past of the most exotic and most peripheral of societies, from the prehistory of the Near East to the ‘primitive’ cultures on the verge of extinction. The goal is no less than to revive the entire past of humanity.
“Mythologies of Memory and Forgetting”
History of Religions (1963)
Youth without Youth is in many ways a movie about the erotics of scholarship, in which a man’s passion for unlimited knowledge largely overwhelms his desire for flesh and blood human relationships. As Dominic Matei, the protagonist of the film, pursues his “life’s work” of isolating the historical origins of language and consciousness, he loses his true love; twice. Dominic’s single-minded drive to “revive the entire past of humanity” is fueled by the hope that human memory, when channeled through paranormal experience, is an infallible record of the past capable of documenting the reality of the supernatural. It is also deeply shaped by the mythic (and Eliadean) narrative that “Western” men are autonomous seekers of spiritual truth, and women and “primitive cultures” are its instrumental vessels.
By some sort of happy coincidence—or to use the surrealist term referenced by Jeremy Biles, “objective chance”—I watched Youth Without Youth the same day that I viewed another movie about the “facts” of enchantment as they appeared in the twentieth century, Fairy Tale: A True Story (1997). Though doing so with admittedly different artistic aspirations and audiences, both movies allude to historical characters and controversies in the study of religion. Set in the Yorkshire countryside during World War I, Fairy Tale retells the story of two young cousins, Frances Griffiths and Elsie Wright, who claim to witness and photograph what came to be known as the “Cottingley Fairies.” In the movie, the girls’ amateur photographs catch the attention of theosophists, of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and of Harry Houdini. Not surprisingly, Doyle, the convinced spiritualist, is portrayed in the film as a champion of the girls and their fairy photos, while Houdini, the renowned magician-skeptic and debunker of frauds and superstitions, has a more suspicious, though ultimately kind, approach to the girls.
Fairy Tale and Youth Without Youth are both films about unsuspecting yet well-primed witnesses of the supernatural. Prior to their photographic exploits, the girls inhabited a world of drawings and stories, like Peter Pan, that urged them to keep the faith of childhood by believing in fairies. In Youth Without Youth, the elderly Dominic Matei has been made ready for his cosmic fate by years of studying ancient languages and exploring his “old passion,” philosophy of religion. Living in Romania at the beginning of World War II, Dominic is struck by lightning, becoming a “post-historic” man whose body itself becomes a record of the supernatural, as he is endowed with superhuman powers of perception and memory, as well as the body of a 40-year-old. Living in skeptical ages, the young girls and the old man are supernatural witnesses who become unwilling celebrities, relentlessly hounded by the curious and the unscrupulous.
Both films encourage us to “believe,” in fairies or metempsychosis, and both share a story of the burden of proof set upon any modern person bold enough to make assertions about the reality of the supernatural or paranormal. However, each film makes a distinct claim about the ways supernatural experiences shape social relationships and call forth the past. The girls photograph the fairies in part as a response to grief-Elsie’s brother has died of pneumonia and Frances’ father has gone missing in action in France-and they hold their knowledge of the fairies between them as a bond. The fairies help them to bear the pain of separation in this life, and to reunite them with those they love. Though skeptics consider the fairies to be fanciful and nostalgic creatures of a bygone era, the girls think them real and present.
By contrast, Dominic’s electrification by lightning occurs when he is on the verge of committing suicide as a lonely old man. Never having completed his scholarly magnum opus, Dominic has also never forgotten his fiancée, Lara, who called off their engagement years before, giving up her love for the young Dominic (and her own interest in his research) to allow him to fully devote his time to his true passion, his scholarship. Armed with his supernatural powers of memory Dominic plunges into the past, drawn by scholarly and physical desire.
Retelling Youth without Youth with Women in the Picture
Other bloggers have retold aspects of the film with their own foci—as John Lardas Modern discussed Eliade’s fascination with technological reproducibility and Jeffrey Kripal discussed how the story fits within the “major epiphanies of modern science, what we might call, Electricity, Mutation, and Radiation.” An equally persuasive trinity of terms to summarize the movie comes from the title of an article that Eliade wrote in 1971, “Spirit, Light, and Seed,” in which he catalogued symbolic connections among divine light and semen, arguing that across religious traditions, incursions of “supernatural Light” have brought forth existential awakenings, or anamnesis, in men. Dominic-struck by lightning, given paranormal powers, and renewed sexual functioning-is the personification of spirit, light, and seed. As he sets out to repossess the past with his newfound paranormal powers, Dominic enacts what was aptly described by Jeremy Biles as a “scholarly wet dream of perfect recollection.”
As a post-historic man, he uses his supernatural gifts of perfect memory and youthfulness to explore his scholarly passions and his sexual desire in a way seemingly denied to him in his previous, “ordinary” life. To borrow Eliade’s words, when making sense of a “meeting with the Light,” “each man discovers what he was spiritually and culturally prepared to discover.” In dealing with his light-spurred bid to repossess the past, I would argue, Dominic Matei had been prepared—by Eliade, by Coppola, by “Western culture”?—to experience his anamnesis, or awakening, within predictably gendered and sexualized tropes of spiritual discovery.
To demonstrate these tropes of gender and sexuality, allow me to recount aspects of the plot focused on women that were not summarized in earlier blogs. With echoes of Kierkegaard and Regine Olson, Dominic is tragically haunted by memories and dreams of Lara, his lost love, who dies in childbirth after having married another man. The post-historic, electrified Dominic is given a second chance, however, when he crosses paths with (what I took to be) Lara’s reincarnated twenty-five year old self, Veronica, in the Alps. (To back up a bit, this is after he has escaped the Nazis in Romania, who discover the secret of his time-bending, superhuman, linguistically prolific self by luring him to into the arms of a beautiful nameless woman with lacy, swastika-patterned lingerie who keeps a copy of Mein Kampf under her bed. In his altered state, Dominic thinks he is having erotic dreams at night, only to find out that, thanks to his newly refreshed body, he really has been enjoying fabulous sex with the Nazi in the next room. As the Nazis pursue Dominic—”the most valuable human specimen on Earth”—his Nazi lover proves her devotion to him, when she steps between him and a gun-toting mad Nazi doctor-futurist).
With two women having sacrificed themselves for him, electrified Dominic is set to continue his life’s work of finding the origin of language and consciousness. Throughout, he is egged on by his somewhat sinister “guardian angel” doppelgänger, who first appears to Dominic in mirrors after his electrification. With the classic spiritualist gambit of a material “apport” from the spiritual world, the guardian angel cements his reality by making two red roses appear in Dominic’s outstretched palm. Either leering or blowing smoke rings when Dominic is in bed with his lovers—and seemingly never enjoying the intimacy himself—the doppelgänger knows the future and the past in ways that Dominic only gradually sorts out.
While in Fairy Tale, the fairy photos provide the paranormal “fact” that scientists and technicians attempt to authenticate, in the case of Youth Without Youth the uncanny facts are Dominic’s lightning-induced superhuman status and then the mysterious transformation of Veronica (Lara’s reincarnation), when she too is struck by lightning. There’s a big difference between Dominic’s and Veronica’s encounter with supernatural light, however. After her electrification, Veronica does not repossess the past; the past repossesses her.
Instead of developing self-aware “post-historic” perceptions and linguistic abilities, Veronica is thrown back in time, losing her identity and tri-linguistic abilities. Inhabiting fully her past life as Rupini, a 14th century woman descended from the first Indian family to convert to Buddhism, Veronica cowers in the corner of her hospital room, speaking only Sanskrit, making Dominic her only conversation partner in town.
Obsessed by the possibility that her 14th century memories could be “fact,” Orientalist scholars, her medical doctors, and Dominic fly Veronica’s traumatized, drugged body to India for “verification” of the places and actions she recounts. The bodily exploitation of Veronica’s memories continue apace once she reawakens to her twentieth century self, as Dominic whisks her away from the media’s glare to a villa in Malta, where she undergoes nightly possessions by her increasingly primal past lives, from Egypt to Babylonia.
With his massive tape recorder always at the ready on the bedside table, by night Dominic captures Veronica’s guttural voices speaking in strange languages, and by day he plays her words back relentlessly, phrase by phrase, to transcribe them, as an exhausted Veronica listens, claiming to be happy to help her scholar-lover in whatever way she can. Her assistance comes at great cost, however, since for some reason Veronica’s electrification has not rendered her more youthful, as did Dominic’s, but has caused here to age rapidly. (For a break from all this past life regression, Dominic takes her dancing and somehow she finds a stunning, cleavage-rich black dress that rivals the Nazi lover’s lingerie for its stylish sexiness). Just when he is on the verge of getting the possessed Veronica to go back to the “inarticulate” origins of language itself, Dominic heroically decides he can no longer use her as his vessel of discovery, as every minute she spends with him she moves closer to death. This time he tells her that he must leave her, for her own good, so that she can go back to her beauty and her youth (but not to her research). Clinging to him, abject in her grief, she reluctantly lets him go. Next time we see her, she is young and beautiful, with two French-speaking children in tow, seemingly having put behind her all her past lives and loves.
Women and the grounds of awakening
In the “true story” of the Cottingley fairies, i.e. not the movie version, Elsie Wright admitted as an old woman that the photographs were fakes, but she and Frances continued to insist that they really had seen the fairies-she abandoned the technological proof, but retained her role as a privileged witness of the magical. In the “fictional story” of Dominic’s cosmic electrification, he too abandons proof (and saves Veronica) by switching off the tape recorder and ending his possession sessions and his relationship with Veronica. He realizes that the past and the supernatural exceed the methods of documentation by which he has sought to possess them.
Throughout his journey, Dominic never directly repossesses the past or witnesses the supernatural. For that, he had to depend on Veronica as the channel to the past-he could translate her bizarre utterances with his amazing linguistic talents and he could interpret her past to her because of the voluminous quantity of data stored in his post-historic brain, but he could not possess the past without her body as a conduit. Among its many other narratives, then, Youth Without Youth tells a very old, and seemingly eternally recurring tale—women are cast as the immanent grounds for a great man’s ethical and intellectual achievements, with their unknowing and lovely bodies as the tools for his self-awareness, his sensual gratification, his historical significance, and his cosmic anamnesis. The depiction of women as handmaids to the pursuit of knowledge may have been somewhat true to the setting of Eliade’s story (though less so to that of its composition in 1975). Veronica’s possession by the past was certainly in keeping with the gendered division of labour among psychical “research” of the early twentieth century, in which women were most often the mediums who put aside their selves to let the spirits speak and write. Told today, however, a story that premises one man’s cosmic awakening on the cosmic unconsciousness (and near destruction) of his muse would benefit from a greater dose of self-awareness and irony than that offered by this retelling of an Eliadean tale.